Editorial: How lies take hold in the brain

  • Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police Sunday in Washington. Welch said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place. AP

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

There is a story, perhaps real, perhaps apocryphal, told by a now long gone Monitor editor, of what happened when this paper’s April 1 edition invited the public to attend a submarine race on the Merrimack River. Submarines, save for miniature versions, are taller than the Merrimack River is deep and longer than a football field. The story was clearly a hoax, but allegedly lots of people showed up for the races and were disappointed – and then angry. That’s how newspapers learn not to run fake news even on April Fool’s Day.

In the Internet age, that propensity to believe what appears in the media, no matter how absurd, is being exploited by pranksters, some innocent, some malicious, and by individuals and groups who’ve learned to weaponize fake news.

Edgar Welch, the 28-year-old father of two daughters who took weapons to a hipster pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., and fired at least one shot, was the victim of fake news that could now put him behind bars. Welch, described by friends and family as a kind, gentle, religious man, believed a sick and twisted tale peddled by an enemy or enemies of Hillary Clinton.

The online story claimed that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats operated a child sex ring from secret chambers beneath Cosmic Ping Pong, a pizza parlor/nightclub in an upscale section of the nation’s capital. The story developed a life of its own as others added to it and confirmed the story. Welch armed himself and drove six hours from his home to see for himself and rescue the children.

Experts on how the human brain functions – neurobiologists, psychologists and others – know how the phenomenon works. Concoct a story that plays on or confirms a person’s worst fears and justifies their hatred, whether of Clinton, the Jews, the Patriots or the Yankees, and people predisposed to believe it will. The more the lie is repeated, and the more other lies confirm it, the deeper it worms itself into the brain and the more fervently it is believed. That’s why so many people believed, and plenty still do, that President Obama was not born in the United States and is not a Christian but a Muslim. It’s also why, we think, that so many remain convinced that trickle-down economics works. Once the false fact is burned into an emotional area of the brain it cannot be dislodged by the truth and the logical part of the brain.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other social network owners are searching for ways to minimize the impact of fake news without violating the First Amendment. Vetting every claim published on the Internet is probably impossible, but perhaps sites could flag suspect stories the way online encyclopedia Wikipedia relies on its readers to add or correct entries.

The proliferation of false facts makes classes on media literacy like those pioneered by the Concord High School faculty crucial. Every citizen needs to instinctively question every assertion, everything read, viewed or heard, and learn which storytellers can be trusted and which can’t. It’s the best way to fight the peddlers of lies.

(Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly referred to Wikipedia as WikiLeaks.)